Taken in by a Wild Bird: An Interview with Tim Dee
By Nancy Campbell
By our rubbish we shall be known. By the gull on our rubbish, likewise.
Author, birdwatcher, and radio producer Tim Dee was born in Liverpool, England in 1961. During his teenage years, his family moved to Bristol, a city celebrated for its individualism and rich creative industries. Bristol is a key location in Dee’s new book, Landfill: Notes on Gull Watching and Trash Picking in the Anthropocene, but its scope is international, taking the reader from South Africa and Madagascar in the southern hemisphere, to the coastlines of Iceland and the Crimea in the north. Detritus is ubiquitous.
Dee’s broad experience of the world is balanced by close observation of particular places. “Careful looking lies behind this enlarging of life,” he writes in Landfill. This attention to detail may be a legacy of Dee’s earlier career as a researcher compiling Red Data books on threatened bird species, and as a producer on BBC radio programs such as the long-running poetry series The Echo Chamber. I first met Dee at BBC Broadcasting House just off Oxford Circus in London, in a small, dark studio not unlike a bird hide, reached through a bewildering warren of corridors and elevators. (His calm and pragmatic approach to recording human voices may owe something to a lifetime of watching birds.) Now more often liberated from the recording studio and one of the U.K.’s most respected nature writers, Dee documents the behavior of birds with lyricism and empathy in books such as The Running Sky (2009) and Four Fields (2013). The latter, the story of four manmade spaces—the field at the bottom of his Cambridgeshire garden; a field in southern Zambia; a prairie battlefield in Little Bighorn, Montana, USA, and a grass meadow in the Exclusion Zone at Chernobyl, Ukraine—confirms his international outlook and interest in the overlap between built and natural environments.
Tim Dee’s latest book explores the lives of gulls and their proximity to humans in cities and in the places to which city life overflows. Of these latter sites, he writes, “Landfill means more than just a tip for the end of things. It is also a description of how we have worked the rest of the living world, learned about it, named and catalogued it, and have thus occupied or planted our planet, filling the land.” Shortly before the book’s U.K. publication in 2018, Dee was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. This interview took place in the spring of 2019 over email between Germany and the U.K.
Evolution is relentless and we still don’t have the language or the understanding to keep up with it.
Nancy Campbell:Landfill considers the habits of gulls and their adaption to the changing environment, as well as human encounters with them, whether in city centers, landfill sites, or the pages of a Russian play. It’s about the connections between species, and especially between the human and more-than-human. Is there a reason this book needed to be written now?
Tim Dee: I needed to write it because I was confused as a birdwatcher by what was going on with the gulls and what was going on with the people who watch them—the gullers. For the first time in my adult birdy life I felt uncertain about something that was happening on my local patch, as it were. I had a look and it turned out that we are, or were at least, in quite a gull-moment. This is a great story of modern nature. The urban gull has come of age in the last 30 years—moving closer to us, no longer living as a seagull, and making its living from our rubbish and waste—and at the same time gull taxonomy and systematics have revised what we think we know of how the gull family is structured as species and subspecies and so on. These are new things to know and they tease at the mind.
Nancy Campbell: You’ve worked in conservation as well as in the media (as a radio producer and writer). In what you describe as an “evolving wordy-birdy life,” you’ve always been interested “in writing about birds, in words about birds, as well as in birds themselves.” How do “words about birds” support conservation? Would you consider yourself an advocate, an activist even?
Tim Dee: I think I am pretty hopeless as far as activism goes or regarding the words about birds being of value to conservation. Birders hardly ever read my books, conservationists likewise. My facticity is poor. I am committed myself as much as anyone—green thinking, post growth, ecosystems support, etc.—but my words have no direct link to conservation. What I would say though is that to lose the possibility of nature—birds in my case—existing as anything in our minds other than imperilled victims of our actions will be the death of them, as much as rainforest destruction or ice melt. To know birds as beings of imaginative power as they have been to our species forever seems an important thing to keep on demonstrating. Birds are good to think with and good to feel with. They are how I understand how much of life works. Of course, they care nothing for this. That is good. I don’t think I need worry about species appropriation or anthropomorphism although I like the debate. It is, though, true to say that most readers don’t care much for this. My squeak on behalf of the poetry of birds—poetry in its widest sense, as in the non-practical or functional use to which we have put them—finds very few followers compared, say, to the pornography of Springwatch (a popular BBC TV series) with added on sado-masochistic grief supplements.
We hate gulls mostly now because they are getting better at being like us than we would like them to be.
Nancy Campbell: Readers know what launched you as a birder, thanks to a passage at the beginning of The Running Sky in which you describe your three-year-old self watching a swallow as it swoops to nest in a garden shed. In Landfill, you mention your first rare bird, a Mediterranean gull spotted when you were 13. After that, you “got serious!” But you write, “I wasn’t a good diarist then, especially not on the chase, when everything in front of me was too exciting to be captured… by standing to one side of it and writing it down.” Clearly the making of a record is important part of “serious” birdwatching, but when did writing diaries develop into writing extended nonfiction?
Tim Dee: Notebook entries, even the baldest account of a list of species and a weather note, have allowed me to re-inflate whole days years after. The practice of writing even just the names makes poets out of all birders though many would hate to be thought that. I was lucky to turn my chattering to various writerly friends into an invitation to write for a few places and then submit a book proposal through an agent who generously took me on. I was working hard at the time as a radio producer facilitating the performances of others and I was growing increasingly gabby behind the glass of the studio: I wanted to talk and I wanted to talk about what I knew and loved and that was birds.
I had tried to be more of a journalist decades before—it’s what got me to the BBC—but only when I began to talk about my take on bird things and other nature matters to a few writing friends did I begin to think there might be prose of my own to be laid down. The material made me the writer in the end. I studied English at university and had a hyper-developed critical brain that crushed the creative in me for decades. And then I worked behind the scenes on others’ creativity at the BBC. Finally the particularities of my way of seeing—that mix of birds and words—allowed me to get going as a writer.
Nancy Campbell: In an earlier book, Four Fields, you studied habitats that might be considered quite humble, and now you’ve turned your attention to landfill sites—another example of humans altering the land, and one which is overlooked (or looked down on). Can you tell us more about these “places designated for dirt” and how they are changing?
Tim Dee: The landfill sites, as we and the gulls have known them for the last 30 or so years, are coming to an end. Food waste is not being thrown away. The gulls are already looking elsewhere. Country parks are being landscaped over the ruins of the ruins. Some—plenty, still far too much—rubbish is still going into surviving sites. And still toxins and radiation and other anthropogenic nasties will persist. We might be cleaning up part of our act but rubbish of many kinds will need managing for thousands of years to come. How different the dirt of Victorian London now seems—I loved reading deeply into the dust typologies of Henry Mayhew. I hope someone is or already had done a Mayhew on modern dust. By our rubbish we shall be known. By the gull on our rubbish, likewise.
Nancy Campbell: Former U.K. poet laureate Andrew Motion wrote in a review of The Running Sky that “we learn a lot about ourselves as well as the fellow creatures flying through, over and around our own lives.” You note that according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World gulls are “adaptable, opportunistic, and omnivorous.” What do birds reveal about humans in this new book?
Tim Dee: We hate gulls mostly now because they are getting better at being like us than we would like them to be. I identify a moment at the end of the 19th century when black-headed gulls first came up the River Thames into London in some very cold weather. They were starving. W. H. Hudson wrote brilliantly about this. The appearance of the gulls triggered two reactions in the human population. Some people—Hudson is careful to identify them as working men and apprentice boys—recognized the gull equivalent of human need in the birds and shared their leftover lunches with them. Others thought them scroungers, gypsies, idlers, and wanted to shoot them. We can see the bifurcation of opinion: a recognition of the birds trying to make their way in a world where they are not calling the shots, and hostility towards a transgressive underclass of animals, who by their very human-survivalist behaviors were made hateful. Any animal that lives as close to us as gulls now are in Britain will in some way hold up a mirror to us. The Anthropocene being what it is, the fate of gulls is pretty much fully tied (in Britain at least) to how we behave and what we do to our shared environment. Some admire the gulls for their rag-picking skills and their ice cream thievery—they might be go-getting entrepreneurs. Some are ashamed to have our wastefulness and our consumption pointed back out to us and wish the pests gone.
Seeing birds close up living alongside us indicates to me that the game isn’t over yet, that the world can still be the home for other life as well as ours, and that it must be for the world to exist.
Nancy Campbell: You encounter gullers as well as gulls: “some of my gang had fallen in… with one family of birds not much regarded by other birdwatchers.” Your portraits of gulls and gullers are affectionate and often amusing, but you also show the significance of the gullers’ studies. Can you give an example of how the data they are gathering is being used? And how have gullers responded to the book?
Tim Dee: Some of the gullers have enjoyed Landfill and value it as a document of how it has been—the people who work or worked at Pitsea landfill feel this especially as the work there on ringing gulls has now ceased as the food waste entering the dump is now (a good thing this, paradoxically) being recycled into compost or incinerated to useable gases. So it happens that I recorded the end of an era there. Others have said not much. Much of the work being done in towns on gulls (e.g., by Peter Rock and Viola Ross-Smith) is important in recording the spread of urban gulls; they also are able to advise on the (very limited) efficacy of gull prevention measures. Britain is about a dozen years ahead of the urban gull curve in Europe; Peter Rock’s work has shown this. The ringing at Pitsea has shown the complexity and dynamism of the whole of the North Sea’s gulls—birds on that dump are coming from northern Norway, others from Portugal. The interconnectedness of European birdlife has never been in doubt, but new and extraordinarily detailed studies of the life histories of individual birds are beginning to be done. Color rings on gulls’ legs can be readily read and GPS loggers are now tracking birds too—we know their every move. Some urban nesting gulls in Cornwall that might have been fingered as likely ice cream- and chip-thieves because of where they nest have been proven to be good old-fashioned seagulls faithfully toiling far out off shore. There are many other revelations. The birdier of my contributors have shown how diligent field craft allows people on rubbish dumps and elsewhere to separate species of birds previously thought distinguishable only via their DNA. That is exciting in a different way.
Nancy Campbell: Yes! The theme of taxonomy runs through Landfill: the patterns humans impose on nature, and how these are often far from impartial, or enduring. How do gulls bring this issue to light for you?
Tim Dee: If you are a birder then species matter because they are the foundations of your interest. Telling species apart is important for birding. It enlarges our understanding of the world to know there are 50 species, say, of gulls rather than just a generic gull. Value comes from a species: a subspecies has less value to a lister but also to a conservationist. Nigel Collar, author of an epic new list of the birds of the world, told me that he wanted nothing to go extinct but if he had to choose between saving a species and a subspecies he would plump for the species. Of course this makes sense—but it has to be said that the species concept is basically only a concept. Nature doesn’t necessarily behave as we would have species do. Caspian gulls have run out of their own kind at the western limits of their expanding range in Germany and Poland and are hybridizing with other gulls. Not only that, their offspring are proving to be fertile, too—that is not supposed to happen under the species concept, since that muddies or jeopardizes what we might think of a species. We need the concept more than the birds do, that is clear. But it is good to contemplate how nature refuses to submit or rather how it tells us that our explanations are not yet the right ones. Evolution is relentless and we still don’t have the language or the understanding to keep up with it.
To be taken in by a wild bird like a gull: to learn of it as it learns of us—that is quite something.
Nancy Campbell: But perhaps watching the natural world closely, humans draw a little closer to an understanding of it? You write about the value of “careful looking.” What is the significance of this, especially in places like landfill sites or garage roofs—not just wildlife sanctuaries or beauty spots?
Tim Dee: One of the reasons I love birds is because they don’t carry bags. They move around and can be at home wherever they are in the world. Seeing birds close up living alongside us indicates to me that the game isn’t over yet, that the world can still be the home for other life as well as ours, and that it must be for the world to exist. Seeing birds in nonwild places underlines all this. Our encounters are striking in these environments. Most birds in wild places fly away from us and do not want to know. Gulls have come towards us. Not only that—they have looked at us. The experience of feeling seen by another animal is something our species has grappled with for thousands of years—our separation and our neighbourly proximity. This has mostly happened with animals more surrendered to us than gulls (animals like pets and domesticated farm animals). To be taken in by a wild bird like a gull: to learn of it as it learns of us—that is quite something. And that this might happen around a waste bin on the road in front of my flat makes it even more striking. It ought to change who we are; it has certainly changed who I am.
Nancy Campbell: One of the gullers you meet, Peter, laughs: “Who the hell ever goes birding in a trading estate?” But he did. And you did. Where will your writing take you next?
Tim Dee: Some notionally nicer places! I’ve been trying to live an extended spring—surely the best season—for a number of years, being in it from its beginnings in the Mediterranean round about the winter solstice to its endings round about the summer solstice in northern Scandinavia. It moves north at about walking pace between these two dates through Europe. I believe there are two seasons, not four—spring and autumn. By following my favorite, most inspirational set of birds—passerine migrants that spend their nonbreeding time in Africa and their breeding times in Europe, I have tried to write a book about time, and time keeping and being in and out of step with what D. H. Lawrence called the world’s morning. As someone firmly over the hill or autumnal in all sorts of ways, having as much of the world’s morning as possible—swallows every day from January to July—seems like a good thing to do. We’re screwing this up as well of course; we know what seasonal affected disorder means for us, soon everyone will know what phenological mismatch means for all of life. Once more—know what you’ve got before it’s gone; once more—know from within what the without means to you.
Nancy Campbell is currently a Literature Fellow at Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Concordia in Bamberg, Germany. Her books on the polar regions includeThe Library of Ice (ScribnerUK, 2018), Disko BayEnitharmon, 2015), and How to Say “I Love You” in Greenlandic (Bird Editions, 2011). In 2018/19 Nancy was Canal Laureate, with a mission to write about the U.K.’s waterways, in a project run by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust. She tweets at @nancycampbelle.